A distance coaching client of mine was updating me about her program. I’ve been trying to educate her on proper muscle balance, because she has an excessively shortened and hyper-activated group of hamstring muscles with outrageously lax and weak gluteal muscles (typical in the Western world).
At our last checkin a couple months ago before she started world trekking, she was making solid progress. Since returning to the states, she decided to enlist the help of several health professionals nearby where she lives. They all echoed my directives. Unfortunately, three of them began prescribing a new set of glute activating techniques which triggered sciatica in her. As is usual, when people’s health care professionals fail them, they reach back out to me to fix the problem.
Rightly, they had agreed with my assessment. Wrongly, they didn’t take into account that the semitendinosus sits directly against the sciatic nerve bundle. She already was at risk for sciatica. If you are a movement specialist, you would know not to have her get into a variety of positions, namely all of the lengthened and loaded hamstring poses and angles. None of them knew this, despite some impressive suffixes.
Also, I’d add that direct compression of the nerve via foam rolling and other myofascial release techniques is dicey. I know it’s appealing to people who are very inexperienced with less than ten years of full-time career knowledge in the human performance arena. But direct tissue pressure is likely only sensible for very advanced professionals (physio and massage therapists) to do to you under their in-person supervision.
I know how to fix orthopedic pain because of tens of thousands of hours of experience with it, because of replete anatomical knowledge, because of non-stop studying, because of my own muscle imbalances which I had to troubleshoot for a decade.
Many, many, many times I run into something I’m not sure about; and I say, “I’m unsure,” or “I don’t feel I can confidently advise,” without more reflection or research. It’s ok to say you don’t know. It’s ok to just not opine.
I get it: troubleshooting bad movement patterns in people is complex. Pain management is non-linear. But despite logging over 45,000 hours of professional experience in the health and fitness world, I know to regularly keep my mouth shut. There are a lot of “pros” who haven’t logged 5,000, yet can’t keep from pontificating from their place of inexperience and ignorance.
If you don’t know, maybe just don’t opine.
I saw a video by a mathematician who was asking a very simple question of evolutionary biologists: what is the average rate of mutation which directs evolution? Not only was he met with puzzled faces, he found that they weren’t capable of answering this very fundamental precursor which would predict future biological trends. If one cannot predict outcomes, one cannot take science to its ultimate step of application: engineering. And if we aren’t moving toward applied science, what are we doing? The mathematician found himself increasingly unable to get past his own skepticism of their ability to tell us anything useful, pointing out the many epicycles they used to rationalize various failed predictions and their endless “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” fallacies.
It got me to thinking about how scientific or unscientific most approaches in fitness are. If we can’t predict the rate of long term success, what does any of it matter? In fact, if we don’t have examples of long term success, what are we even modeling? I would argue most anecdotes from most fitness personalities barely contain hypotheses, let alone predictive models. They all end up being circular, saying something like, “success equals listening to me; they didn’t succeed because they didn’t listen,” or some other nonsense about eating less and exercising more.
There are known mechanisms in biology which direct fitness. That much is true. How fat exits an adipocyte is known. The rate that connective tissue is turned over is known. Those averages are defined.
But we also need certain balances in place. Vitamin D directs the conversion of t4 to the active thyroid hormone t3. We can’t well start to engineer fat loss while someone is insufficient on vitamin D. Stress reinforces various receptor downregulation cascades, including those receptors which were responsible for fat leaving the adipocyte. We can’t ADD the stress of endurance exercise to an increased benefit if someone already is glucocorticoid resistant. In fact, over and over again, what we find is that difficulty in life and job (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00420-018-1392-6) and lack of sleep (http://www.uu.se/en/news-media/press-releases/press-release/?id=4418&area=3,8&typ=pm&lang=en) change gene expression such that people gain weight or can’t lose body fat no matter how restricted their eating or how active they are (https://www.uchicagomedicine.org/forefront/news/2010/october/sleep-loss-limits-fat-loss).
How can we use all of that to predict a reasonable rate of progress? That is, where is the applied science or engineering for fitness? For one, I can predict that people who refuses to manage stress appropriately will be incapable of improving body composition no matter how tightly they adhere to the most rigorous and time-tested bodybuilding workout and nutrition programs. The sexy new fitness boutique or trendy nouveaux supplement will not produce a net improvement in fitness and health. You cannot overcome lack of stress management without managing stress. I can predict that a person who is persistently overwhelmed in her workplace cannot end up more muscular and leaner AND healthier year-over-year. She’ll have to pick one or two, but cannot obtain all three. And I can predict that a male who has ample rest and resources can lose about 2lbs of fat weekly even with lax but reasonable adherence to a basic fitness program. I can predict that when someone manages life and work stress well, that person can get as lean or muscular as humanly possible without health detriment. A person whose heart rate variability is high (this is a good thing), resting heart rate is low (when combined with high HRV this is great), and is overall unstressed (as indicated by the prior two), can endure extremely intense training and have 20-50lb body composition changes in just a few months. I’ve known a few people who tried to break the rules here, still forced (via drug use) the body to get leaner or more muscular while they were overstressed, but at a SEVERE health cost to immune, renal, pancreatic and gut function (and permanent damage to the pituitary with risk of irreversible hypogonadism).
People keep working themselves in circles talking about “eat less, move more.” No. No. No.
Repeat this: “Stress less - Enjoy more”. With that in place, we can actually predict with high accuracy your rate of progress off of known biological averages. We can apply science. We can engineer fitness. Without genuine stress management in place, there is no reasonable rate of progress. In fact, even the appearance of progress in this environment isn’t progress. It is faux composition changes which are hiding an eroding underlying health. There are a lot of shredded six packs over top hypertrophic hearts and failing kidneys. Looks CAN be a sign of health. But they usually aren’t. Some of the leanest and skinniest people I’ve known are about ready to drop dead. Some of the most obese people I’ve known should start with philanthropy, charity, meditation, and solid sleep hygiene before they even think about going for a jog or reducing food intake. And that’s not hyperbole. The human body is a stress management system. If it’s already broken, we won’t fix it by starving it and adding more stress. Its remaining broken resources will be called upon to try to survive the reoccurring abuse.
Let us all aim to be more like effective engineers and less like clueless theoreticians. And like a good engineer, manage structural stressors and environmental pressures to your advantage. Seek to reduce them and direct them. If you don’t, don’t take for granted that they’ll just magically bring about your personal evolution.
I don’t have any. No, seriously. We don’t compete. If they’re competent and experienced, we are collaborators or peers. If they’re not, I don’t even think of them as existing. There are many great people who bring things to the table I don’t have. And there is no one remotely like me in the entire health and wellness industry. We are different. Competition implies one is better than another. No one is better than me. And I don’t think I’m better than anyone else.
You don’t have any competition either. I mean, really think about it. Do you honestly believe there is one person on earth right now who has faced the exact road of life and challenges in the exact same sequence you have? If everyone has his or her own unique beginnings, unique background, unique environment, how do we honestly say one is better than the other?
It’s like arguing about whether a grape does a better job at being an orange than an orange does at being a grape.
My focus is anti-aging, maximal efficiency of program, to help people with really complex health issues resolve those issues, people with overwhelming orthopedic problems correct and/or mitigate them, and long term wellness. I have clients who reversed diseases which are allegedly incurable. Without medical intervention of any kind, I’ve resolved my own hip/knee/back/nerve-pain issues which supposedly couldn’t be fixed without surgeries. I have clients who are 50-100+ lbs lighter 12-15 years later. I am 70lbs lighter 12 years later. The first client who told me she was ready to explore high level physique competition became an IFBB Pro. The first serious powerlifter who sought my counsel reached a 10x bodyweight total. I don’t even know OF any coach who can honestly say two of the last seven sentences. No one. Not an Olympic coach. Not an online influencer. Not a contributing author on T-Nation or Bodybuilding.com. Not a collegiate head coach. Nobody. Not even close.
To be fair, there are many peers of mine who can honestly say a whole roster of personal and coaching accomplishments which I can’t. We’re different, at different places in our pursuits and careers, with different interests, connecting to different people in different ways at different junctures in their lives as well. I know guys and gals who pull from a depth of knowledge in their training which I just won’t likely ever have.
All that said, there is indeed a competition afoot. You see that placard pictured above? That's what we're all up against. There is a competition of knowable, repeatable, falsifiable, testable (ie - science) processes versus unknowable, non-repeatable, unfalsifiable, untestable (or testable with dubious outcomes) processes. And you are caught in the crossfire. You are a bystander of sorts, getting your attention wrenched away from solid strategy by the entertainment of nonsense and gimmicks. I don’t compete against that nonsense and noise. But I would love to pull you off the battlefield if you let me. If you’d like to stop being assaulted by pseudoscience and distracting fakery, stay tuned, follow us, subscribe or reach out for a gratis consult.
When it’s colder than Antarctica, is that sufficient? When you’re injured, busy, sick? How do we define busy? How sick?
When I do nutrition coaching and life strategy with clients, there is a PRINCIPLE I insist upon. It’s called listening-to-yourself. The way this revolutionary tactic works is that you figure out BEFOREHAND what you will and won’t accept as legitimate excuses. If you always determine how you will behave based on how you feel in the moment, there is no hope. ANYTHING can feel legitimate. There’s this thing in your skull that uses language and logic, called the prefrontal cortex. Try that instead.
Let me help you. Let’s say you’re aiming to change your eating patterns. This involves a lot of adherence to planning. But you have an upcoming party. Most people go into this totally clueless and ready to shoot themselves in the foot, saying some complete nonsense, like, “I’ll try to behave myself.” No. What PRECISELY are you GOING to do? Will it be one drink or two? Will it be none of the hors d’oeuvres or one?
You make the determinations before you face the circumstance, while you can utilize the rational brain, and then you execute. Over time, you find you develop this skill some people confuse with self-control. I call it honesty. Your words increasingly match your actions.
Big difference. Unrelated, in fact. You ever get frustrated by trying to do what “in shape” people do? It doesn’t really get you inTO shape. That’s because most in-shape people haven’t overcome what you have in order to get inTO shape.
It’s like trying to figure out how to bootstrap launch a business by studying other businesses. Most businesses exist because prior wealth came from mommy or daddy or a familial investor. You gotta find outlier examples or someone to “adopt” you.
Likewise with fitness - most examples aren’t very helpful. Motivating or inspiring? Absolutely. Educational or informative? Eh... too much bro science and conflicting narratives.
If you weren’t a natural childhood athlete and you find yourself in adulthood trying to get inTO shape, it’s a VERY different experience. If you did have an athletic childhood, but it’s been years since you were really healthy or active, it’s VERY different. At a certain level, being lean and fit is a skill of certain hormonal and enzymatic cascades. You’re unskilled. You can’t use skilled examples as your template. You can utilize them for inspiration. Don’t conflate that with instruction.
I know. I know. Rules of biology exist independent of the personal experience of the person invoking them. True. But there’s the x-factor of what is right for the individual.
Consider this: when I used to do new hire development, we would reach a day where we talked about prescribing homework for clients; and I would ask the group what they thought were best activities for the rest of the days of the week. If the trainer was herself a runner she’d say, “running.” If the coach himself loved yoga, he’d say, “yoga.” If the new hire liked lifting, he’d say, “lifting.” And so on. To the first, I’d ask, “what about an amputee or a client who just had knee scoped?” To the second, I’d say, “what about someone with preexisting hyper-mobility or Ehlers-Danlos who needs MORE joint stability?” To the third, I’d say, “what if they dislike lifting or cannot hit safe postures on their own?”
Fit gurus have passion. They all have their likes. But they haven’t yet figured out how to connect fitness to an outsider, an outlier, or an unexpected case. What I’ve learned over thousands of clients and members is there is no totally “normal” or “expected” case.
I learned this firsthand. I have rare lever ratios, odd muscle insertions, and a vast history of injuries and health troubleshooting thanks in large part trying to listen to “experts” who were playing by a completely different set of rules than mine. My personal experience lent itself to predominantly working with clients who are equally or more vexing in their orthopedic and health issues.
And I have to say, most of the people I’ve coached would not be able to make any progress with the typical advice and formats out in the fitness world. In fact, they all tried, and ended up working with me mostly as a direct consequence from popular programs failing abjectly.
I get it. It’s very frustrating to hear “eat less; move more” preached at you. It kinda burns coming from people who just haven’t faced what you have. I understand. It’s irritating hearing about the primacy of heavy squats from people who never moved like you, never dealt with your injuries, and don’t understand that there are VASTLY different skeletal builds. It’s a non-starter when you’re overstressed with life to hear a stress-free kid tell you to do MORE. You’re not weak-willed or lazy. You’re just listening to the wrong people who straight up don’t get it.
Personally, I want to spend most of my time in a week educating people or playing with my kids. For me, that means I will do at a maximum maybe 90 minutes per week of what would be considered exercise. I find that makes me much more capable of understanding busy professionals than when I was first in the industry, at a time when it was important to me to be the biggest, strongest, or leanest person in the gym. That list of priorities has no connection to me or most humans. If a guru's understanding of fitness requires 8-16 hours of workout time and hours of meal prep, how does that instruct the person who simply wants to improve their overall week?
Just pick steps and work steps which are a net win. Start where YOU are. Work YOUR steps
When it comes to exercise application, there are 3-5 basic categories of movement. We can compound them or subdivide them. But skeletal movement as a whole has a very defined and finite classification of fourteen actions: flexion, extension, rotation (medial or lateral), abduction, adduction, circumduction, inversion, eversion, protraction, retraction, elevation, depression, supination, and pronation. That’s it. Total. And even these fourteen are really just the more specific qualifications of “up, down, away, toward.”
That’s all there ever was. When Spartan hoplites were training themselves 2500 years ago, this was it. The new fad around the corner? Still this is it. When Egyptian and Sumerian warriors were training 4500 years ago, this was it. When a new fitness franchise pops up next week, this will still be it. When the first yoga texts were being penned 1500 years ago, this was it. When the robots take over 15 years from now, this will still be it.
The human body will only ever move the way it always has. Don’t get distracted. Get skilled at strength in positions which improve your life. Don’t waste time on gimmicks which purport to be a new method of human movement. If your grip, back/core and hips cannot produce the mobility and force required to do basic tasks of life and until the end of your life, what are we even doing?
Can you get on and off the floor with ease? Can you grip and pick up heavy objects? Can you rotate under duress? Can you load the body with a resistance beyond itself and maintain unperturbed effort? No? Then fix it. Yes? Then great.
That’s all you need; and it leads to all you want as well. Be strong. Move well. Don’t get caught up in the 750,000 alternative variant exercises and their accompanying marketing.
*at holiday party*
- people: *excited expression* “you look better than everybody here and the best you have in 10 years! What are you doing?”
- CLIENT: “I work with this coach named Jonathan.”
- people: *even more excited expression* “OMG! What is the SECRET?!”
- CLIENT: “he just walks me through realistic changes I can make, prioritizing strengthening, nutritional sufficiency - we get a bit into the science and psychology of it.”
- people: *excitement face giving way to puzzled face* “... so there’s no like pill or detox or intense group class?”
- CLIENT: “no. It’s just really about sensible change, sustainable lifestyle, meeting people where they are, and citing supporting research without swearing by a diet or one school of thought AND he really understands how the body works AND...”
- people: *already lost interest and broke eye contact*
I wish it weren’t true. But on average it is. The above is a paraphrased exchange I heard (which was nearly identical) from three SEPARATE clients of mine this past week. It’s paraphrased, but barely. It may as well be an exact quote. I’ve run into it a lot over the past 15 years in this profession. Most large organizations capitalize on it and play into the false expectations. I never have.
People talk about unfair bosses. My boss is the marketplace. And the discussion above is an accurate portrayal of the overriding marketplace. My boss wants to pay me based on excitement, not on deep science, not on tens of thousands of professional experience hours, not on solid methodology. My boss wants to exchange dollars for hype, not for education. I’ve left a few million dollars on the table by never once going with the trend or the fad.
And I still made it work, and well enough to take care of my family, well enough to still be doing this health and wellness thing as my only gig 15 years later. Plus I get to look at myself in the mirror. People who rode the trends? They made their millions or not; but most aren’t in this industry any more. And if they are, it certainly isn’t their sole focus for the primary breadwinner.
On the other side of the equation, as the consumer, you too can make it work by bucking the trend, by skipping the fad. It won’t be as exciting. It won’t be riding the current wave. But 15 years later, you can be solidly and actively growing in your journey.
Not only CAN you in theory, already you ARE doing. I believe in you. Just a little more direction, a little more nudge, a little more consistency.
No more negative self-talk. I believe in you. You are going to reach the peak. Yeah - it’s daunting. Yeah - it’s tiring. But you didn’t come this far to only go this far. I believe in you.
I saw an online celebrity training guru say if you just purchase his E-book you could buck the trend that is less than 5% of people who make a weight loss effort lose 10% of bodyweight (or more) and keep it off for 3 years (or more). I believe in you whether or not you get the “right” info, the “right” plan, the “right” program.
I believe in you because every one of my hundreds of employees at the big boxes destroyed that stat ON AVERAGE. I believe in you because I personally lost 70lbs. I believe in you because I have clients 10-15 years later who are 50-150lbs less than they once were. I believe in you because up close I’ve seen it done by people with every challenge, with broken body, with broken metabolism, with broken joints, within a broken system, with a broken mind, a broke pocketbook, and with a just-about broken spirit.
I believe in you because somebody has to, even if you don’t. Even when you don’t. Even when you say you do but we all know it’s not true, I’m telling you: I believe in you.
Whatever your age, race, pronoun, lifestyle, skin tone, background, mistakes, circumstances, successes, failures, fill-in-the-blank-here, I believe in you.
Just don’t stop. Just keep going. I believe in you.
Another example comes along to destroy your false paradigm. I want to give endless credit to @musclemadness and Mary Duffy for their efforts, their video on youtube (from which this screenshot came), and the harsh reality check which comes from both (#musclemadness). In the video (https://youtu.be/3h1P58BIa2s) Mary Duffy performs some seemingly incredible feats, except they're actually pretty every day practices once you've implemented healthy behaviors and just... you know... lift weights, like I and the sum total consensus of science on aging has been telling you for the past 15 years. In her 70s she shows YET AGAIN that we need not accept the passage of time as some sort of divine ordinance that you MUST become WORSE.
There is always this intimidation factor which people have to get over. I understand it well. I wasn't an athlete growing up. I found that "lifting weights" wasn't for me many a time. I've worked with not a few people who end up giving up on strength training in exasperation because they can't seem to figure out how to work around their various orthopedic issues and train effectively without irritation.
But, I would simply challenge you to at once both think bigger and think smaller. Think bigger in the sense that you really can do this and more. Think smaller in the sense that you need not START big. Just start. The compounded interest of physiology doesn't rely on you lifting "heavy" (whatever that even means to you) today. It just relies on you stressing skeletal muscle with relatively challenging loads regularly. And that journey can be started at any moment, by anyone, in any tolerable manner, without equivocation.
Just look at Mary here.
Cyclical progressions or program “cycling” or periodization is what works, every time, all things considered. Chaos or overextended steady state is what never works, ever, even including the one or two statistical outliers whose “testimonials” we see on infomercials. Generally, I find it not very helpful to juxtapose competitive bodybuilding lifestyle with layperson efforts. However, in the case of drawing people’s attention to programs which don’t work so well versus programs which HAVE TO repeatedly, reliably work over and over again, there’s a good lesson here.
Usually, the way people interface with fitness is going from nothing to too much, while day 3 has no rational connection to day 17. That “too much” I’m referencing with regard to their internal capacity and given hours and willpower for any given day or week. Let’s just say that they’re counting calories at 1200 a day and doing 6 hours of exercise per week (probably a bad idea, by the way). Now what? What progression can that person reasonably change to try to force the body to change in kind? And then what? And then what?
Obviously you’ll find that they’re about ready to break, even at the point of the givens in the first question. So it can’t go anywhere. There is no ramp. There is no momentum. There is no dramatic percent alteration which can be levied. So chaos follows.
Contrast that with progressive strategies which always work:
There’s an “off season.” Purposely people will take “fat burn time” per week low and caloric intake high. They will “start over” from time to time in both intensity and volume of work performed. The ON PURPOSE “starting week” may have as little as ZERO minutes of exercise and as many as 10,000 plus calories per day.
This allows for restoration of organ resilience, such that the body can endure the ensuing period of increased sympathetic activity.
Then there’s somewhere to go. There’s a launch point to increase activity. There’s a launch point from which to reduce food intake, glycemic impact. There’s a reasonable launch point for dramatic percent changes in stimulus. And the forthcoming progression can be relatively linear and continue with unbroken consistency for a while.
This is where the physique athlete shines and the laypeople shoot themselves in the feet.
There is more going on here than the bald minutes and theoretical total energy expenditure. But even if we were to just examine those two variables, how can you expect to progress if week 1 has you starving, week 3 has 247 minutes of intense mixed exercise, week 4 has 190 minutes of moderate cardio, week 5 has no food tracking, week 6 sleep is compromised, and so on? There’s no theme. There’s no framework. There’s no continuity. There’s no direction. Strength could still be built. Mobility can improve. You just can’t rely on shifts in composition.
You’re better off picking a daily 5 minute practice and growing your consistent behaviors. When you want to “see” a body comp progression curve, you must invoke a stimulus progression curve. After you’ve consistently increased stimuli 8-30 weeks in a row, you “start over.” That is, you reset various switches in the program or “cycle” the progressions, so you’re assuredly not overextended. Then, there’s a methodology at play. There’s a progression that’s definable.
Aiming to “go hard” isn’t strategic. One week you get sick. Now what? Got a “good workout” in today (whatever that even means). What about the next 8 days? Group training can fall into a trap for this as well. If it operates on “push it,” that sounds marketable and enticing. There’s just no foundation or scaffolding. So where are we going with it?
That’s why cyclical progression remains a secret. It has more nuance and doesn’t fit in a 5 second sound byte. It takes down time as an opportunity. It sees “pushing it” as the likely marker for the end of a progression period instead of the middle or beginning.
Pictured above is a recumbent bike. In the Winter and Spring of 2007 I lost about 70lbs personally using simply progressive programming strategies while my only "cardio" or "fat burn" tool was a 16 minute effort on the recumbent bike. It was such an effective tool that all of my employees and their clients began using this to the point that the gym didn't have enough bikes to fill the demand. The fact of the matter is that any tool would've worked. It was the progressive strategy that was the magic. You need not overwork yourself. You need not starve yourself. You need only to have some sensible direction in where you're going.